“All the principles of heaven and earth are living inside you. Life itself is the truth, and this will never change. Everything in heaven and earth breathes. Breath is the thread that ties creation together.“
Ueshiba Morihei – The Art of Peace
One of the unique aspects of Traditional Oriental Medicine is the concept that human beings are a microcosm of the universe. By careful observation of the relationships and interactions occurring in Nature, this knowledge can then be applied to the human body for the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of health problems.
Based on this Eastern approach of observing natural phenomena, one of the most important theories in Traditional Japanese acupuncture and shiatsu is that of the “Five Phases of Transformation”, sometimes also referred to as the Five Elements.
Like the theory of Yin – Yang, or polar opposites, Five Phase theory was originally taken from ancient Chinese science and philosophy and was important in everyday life, from farming and agriculture to military strategy and the martial arts.
Five Phase theory demonstrates dynamic processes of transformation and change within Nature, with these phases being traditionally classified as Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water.
For example, the Wood phase relates to centrifugal movement, similar to the sprouting new growth of plant life in the springtime. In addition, during this time of year the wind comes from the eastern part of China and the green and unripe fruits growing in the region have a sour taste. In Eastern medicine, the Liver corresponds to the Wood phase because of its quality of helping the blood circulation spread outwards throughout the body, especially that of supplying nourishment to the tendons and ligaments which control the movements of the muscles. Finally, a severe windstorm can cause massive destruction, similar to how the Liver’s associated emotion of anger and rage can easily become unrestrained.
Fire, with its image of flickering flames, is associated with the southern part of China and its hot tropical summer climate. In addition, extreme heat burns and scorches food, producing bitter flavours. The Heart corresponds to the Fire phase, as it regulates the circulation throughout the blood vessels and its associated emotion is mania and overexcitement, resembling a fire burning out of control.
The Earth phase has a stable quality to it and describes the central agricultural regions of China with their damp paddy fields, filled with rich and nourishing yellow mud, being harvested in the late summertime. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the digestive system of the Spleen-Pancreas is a central foundation to good health, and the sweet flavour of rice and other whole grains are nourishing for the muscles. A healthy and stable Earth phase results in someone who is “grounded” whereas an imbalance produces worry and overthinking.
Metal ore is found in the arid desert mountains of western China, with the autumn season being especially dry in the region. The Lungs are associated with this phase, the actions of inhalation and exhalation resembling that of bellows used in forging and metalwork. The skin is regarded as being a “third lung” supporting the respiratory system and the corresponding emotion is that of sadness and grief.
Water, the fifth and final phase, has the characteristics of dissolving and sinking and is associated with the cold, dark, ocean waters to the north, especially in the wintertime. In the body, the Water phase is regulated and kept in balance by the Kidneys, and the mineral-rich salty flavour of seaweed helps to nourish and strengthen the bones.
The above table summarizes some of the qualities associated with the Five Phases and demonstrates how a wide range of natural phenomena can be categorized.
However, the true value and purpose of the Five Phase theory is in observing how these systems influence and interact with each other throughout all of Nature. In turn, this knowledge can then be applied to the human body and is discussed in more detail in Part 2.